Gideon Alert: Illinois reneges on promise to pay county chief public defender salaries

BY David Carroll on Friday, April 16, 2010 at 10:27 AM

Although there are right to counsel systems that are systemically deficient below the Mason-Dixon line (chiefly Alabama, Georgia and Mississippi), the region of the country most consistently failing to provide constitutionally adequate indigent defense represention is the Rust Belt (starting in upstate New York and continuing through Pennsylvania, Ohio, Indiana, Michigan and – today’s featured state – Illinois).

Like Michigan, Illinois has a nationally-recognized statewide, state-funded appellate defender office.  But the largest part of the burden of providing trial-level services is shouldered by the individual counties.  While the State Appellate Defender’s Capital Trial Assistance unit provides trial assistance in death eligible cases, the only other money that the state contributes to trial-level services is for the salary of the county Chief Public Defenders.  The Alton Telegraph is reporting that the State of Illinois is now reneging on the promise to pay for even this small expenditure.  Facing tough economic times, the state has told the counties it will only pay for ten months of Chief Public Defender salaries, leaving salaries unpaid for May and June of 2010 -- a quite immediate problem. 

Greene County in Illinois has a population of 13,644, with 15% living below the poverty line.  In response to the state action, the County Commission reduced the salary of its Public Defender back to what it had been before the state took over reimbursing counties for Chief Defender salaries.  For tiny Greene County, this cut the Public Defender's pay by over 38 percent, and the Commissioners quite rightly considered what they might do if the Public Defender resigns.  Should there be a vacancy in the public defender position, the process to replace the Chief Defender is that the Circuit County Judge hand picks a replacement with consent of the other judges.  The article notes that the Greene County Public Defender moonlights as a public defender in a neighboring county, raising questions about the defender's workload.

The state reduction in financial contribution to the counties, and this county reaction to it, highlight many of the systemic deficiencies in Illinois' system of providing counsel.  The movement to state funding for Chief Public Defender salaries was the result of a broad-based, bi-partisan statewide committee, The Task Force on Professional Responsibility in the Illinois Justice Syste, that looked at problems of both prosecutors and public defenders.  Bemoaning the lack of state support for either the prosecution or defense, the Task Force defined the Illinois criminal justice system as “the inexperienced prosecuting cases against the overwhelmed.”  Working on behalf of the Task Force, The Spangenberg Group found that on average public defenders in Illinois were carrying over 400 felony cases per year.  This was at the height of the nation’s economic boom (1999), underscoring the myth that the indigent defense crisis today is simply a result of current bad economic times.  The first recommendation of the Task Force to improve justice in Illinois was for the State to create a partnership with the counties in discharging the state’s obligation to provide competent defense counsel. 

Lest anyone think the juvenile justice system in Illinois is sound, the National Juvenile Defender Center (NJDC) released an excellent report in 2007 noting that attorneys charged with defending children are “overwhelmed” and treading water by focusing on “high volume court calls rather than focusing on the individual needs of the clients.”  NJDC’s observations of untimely appointment of counsel and lack of zealous advocacy for children certainly apply to the adult side as well.